Jay, John

views updated Jun 08 2018

Jay, John

Excerpt from the Jay Treaty

Signed on November 19, 1794
Published in Documents of American History, edited by
Henry S. Commager, 1943

Signed in November 1794, the Jay Treaty (also known as Jay's Treaty) was essentially a truce between Britain and the United States, with each country agreeing to put an end to their hostilities and honor promises made in earlier treaties. When the terms of the Jay Treaty were made public, political division within the United States increased significantly. The two U.S. political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, supported opposing sides in the European war between France and Britain. France had declared war on Britain in 1793, hoping to start a rebellion of the working-class British against the British aristocracy (upper class), similar to the rebellion that was already occurring in France. The Democratic-Republicans remained loyal to France for its support of American forces during the American Revolution (1775–83), when the colonies were fighting for independence from Britain. Democratic-Republicans viewed the French Revolution as similar to the American Revolution and supported the French rebellion. They called for the United States to join France in its war against Britain.

The Federalists, who were largely merchants, manufacturers, and shippers, wanted the United States to strengthen its ties with Britain in order to increase trade. Federalists opposed war with Britain. They believed another war with Britain would be economically disastrous for the United States. However, the Federalists found it difficult to win any support for their cause, because Britain was purposely disrupting American trade with other countries. Between 1793 and 1794, the British seized nearly three hundred American ships that were trading with islands in the French West Indies. The British also captured U.S. sailors and forced them into military service aboard British warships; this practice was known as impressment. These seizures of ships and sailors infuriated Americans.

Another lingering issue causing American contempt for the British was their continued occupation of fur-trading forts in the Old Northwest. The Old Northwest included land north of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes and Canada, east to Pennsylvania's western border, and west to the Mississippi River. British forts included Mackinac, Detroit, Niagara, Oswegatchie, and Oswego on Lake Ontario, and Dutchman's Point on Lake Champlain. From the forts, British troops supplied Native Americans with guns and encouraged them to resist American settlement. Under the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris (the peace agreement that ended the American Revolution and granted the United States independence from Britain), the British were to abandon these forts. Instead, the British had remained, and their support of Native American hostilities had almost completely halted American settlement in the region.

Another unresolved issue with Britain involved slaves. During the American Revolution, the British offered freedom to slaves if they could escape, manage to reach British lines, and join the British army. Many slaves took this opportunity to gain their freedom. Some thirty thousand fled Virginia, and twenty-five thousand left South Carolina. When the war ended, Southern planters demanded payment from the British for the loss of these slaves. However, despite repeated demands, the British had not paid them anything.

In 1794, President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) sent Supreme Court chief justice John Jay (1745–1829) to Britain to negotiate resolutions to the difficulties in order to avoid war with Britain. Jay was an experienced negotiator. He had been part of the U.S. delegation that negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris. This time, Jay knew he and the United States were in a weak bargaining position, because the United States had almost no military capability to force the issues.

The treaty Jay managed to negotiate, the Jay Treaty, included a number of British concessions, or compromises. Britain once again promised to withdraw from its forts in the Old Northwest (Article 2). Britain agreed to pay for damages caused to U.S. ships recently seized (Article 7). In return, the United States agreed to repay some debts to Britain (Article 6). Britain also opened up British markets for trade with the United States (Articles 11–17).

Although the British had given in on certain issues, many Americans were outraged with the terms of the treaty. There were those who did not believe that the British would abandon the Old Northwest forts, because Britain had failed to follow through on the same promise eleven years earlier. The two issues that bothered Americans the most, impressment of sailors and the stealing of slaves, were not addressed in the treaty. Britain did agree to pay some damages to shippers for the loss of their vessels and opened up trade for the United States with Britain and British territories. However, the treaty made no guarantees that Britain would stop seizing U.S. ships that were trading with countries such as France.

To many Americans, the Jay Treaty seemed like a Federalist sellout to the British for more trade. Federalist shippers would be paid back for seizure of their vessels, and Federalist merchants and manufacturers would have British markets open to them; however, there was little in the treaty for anyone else. The treaty did draw the United States and Britain closer together than they had been since the end of the American Revolution in 1783.

The French were also upset by the terms of the Jay Treaty. The U.S. alignment with Britain seemed in defiance of an earlier treaty between the United States and France. Article 8 of the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France stated that neither the United States nor France could make a truce or peace with Britain "without the formal consent of the other." The pro-French Democratic-Republicans were disgusted, because the United States appeared to be breaking its promise to France. More and more Americans adopted an anti-British, anti-Federalist view and moved to the pro-French Democratic-Republican side.

Knowing the Jay Treaty would be controversial, President Washington tried to keep the terms of the treaty secret. He even called a secret session of the Senate on June 8, 1795, to consider ratification (approval). Copies of the treaty leaked out, and intense public debate took place. Nonetheless, the Senate, dominated by Federalists, ratified the treaty on August 14, 1795. Despite substantial public opposition, Washington signed the treaty shortly afterward, with strong encouragement from Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), the secretary of the treasury and leader of the Federalists.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from the Jay Treaty:

  • In the Jay Treaty, Britain made some concessions by agreeing to leave the Old Northwest fur-trading posts, open trade, and reimburse U.S. shippers for seized vessels. The treaty averted war between the United States and Britain. However, it did not guarantee that the British would stop capturing U.S. sailors and seizing U.S. ships trading with countries other than Britain. The treaty also ignored the issue of compensation for stolen slaves. Therefore, overall the treaty was a bitter disappointment to a majority of Americans.
  • Articles 2, 3, and 4 announced that the British would leave Old Northwest fur-trading posts, that all inhabitants including Native Americans could navigate the lakes and rivers and pass freely through the region, and that a boundary would be established between the United States and British-controlled Canada.
  • Articles 6 and 7 promised British payment of damages to U.S. merchants and citizens and U.S. payment of debts owed to British merchants and other British lenders.
  • Articles 11, 13, 14, and 15 opened limited trade markets. U.S. ships were allowed to trade with Britain and British territories in the East Indies (Southeast Asia). However, any U.S. ship trading in the East Indies could only bring goods back to U.S. ports and could not go to any other country.

Excerpt from the Jay Treaty

ART. I. There shall be a firm ... peace, and a true and sincere friendship betweenhis Britannic Majesty, his heirs and successors, and the United States of America; and between their respective countries, territories, cities, towns and people of every degree, without exception of persons or places.

ART. II. His Majesty will withdraw all his troops andgarrisons from all posts and places within the boundary lines assigned by thetreaty of peace to the United States. This evacuation shall take place on or before [June 1, 1796] ...: The United States in the mean timeat their discretion extending their settlements to any part within the said boundary line . ... All settlers and traders, within theprecincts or jurisdiction of the said posts, shall continue to enjoy,unmolested, all their property of every kind, and shall be protected therein. ...

ART. III. It is agreed that it shall at all times be free to his Majesty's subjects, and to the citizens of the United States, and also to the Indians dwelling on either side of the said boundary line freely topass and repass by land, orinland navigation, into the respective territories and countries ofthe two parties on the continent of America ... and to navigate all the lakes, rivers, and waters thereof, and freely to carry on trade and commerce with each other. ... The river Mississippi, shall however, according to the treaty of peace be entirely open to both parties; and it is further agreed, that all the ports and places on its eastern side ... may freely be ... used by both parties, in asample a manner as any of the Atlantic ports or places of the United States, or any of the ports or places of his Majesty in Great Britain. ...

ART. IV. Whereas it is uncertain whether the river Mississippi extends so far to the northward, as to beintersected by a line to be drawn due west from theLake of the Woods ...; the two parties will thereupon proceed byamicable negotiation, toregulate the boundary line in that quarter. ...

ART. VI. Whereas it is alleged by ... British merchants and others ... that debts, to a considerable amount, which werebona fide contracted beforethe peace, still remain owing to them by citizens or inhabitants of the United States, and that by theoperation of variouslawful impediments since the peace, not only the full recovery of the said debts has been delayed, but also the value and security thereof have been, in several instances, impaired and lessened, so that by the ordinary course ofjudicial proceedings, the British creditors cannot now obtain ... full and adequate compensation for the losses and damages, which they have thereby sustained. It is agreed, that in all such cases where full compensation for such losses and damages cannot, for whatever reason, be actually obtained, had and received by the saidcreditors in the ordinary course of justice, the United States will make full and completecompensation for the same to the said creditors. ...

ART. VII. Whereas complaints have been made by ... merchants and others, citizens of the United States, that during the course of the war in which his Majesty is now engaged, they have sustained considerable losses and damage, by reason of irregular or illegal captures ... of their vessels and other property,under colour of authority or commissions from his Majesty, and that from various circumstances belonging to the said cases adequate compensation for the losses and damages so sustained cannot now be actually obtained ... by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings; it is agreed that in all such cases, where adequate compensation cannot, for whatever reason, be now actually obtained, had and received by the said merchants and others, in the ordinary course of justice, full and complete compensation for the same will be made by the British government to the said complainants. ...

ART. XI. It is agreed between his Majesty and the United States of America, that there shall be areciprocal and entirely perfect liberty of navigation andcommerce, between their respective people, in the manner, under the limitations, and on the conditions specified in the following articles:

[Art. XII, relating to trade with the West Indies, was suspended.]

ART. XIII. His Majesty consents that the vessels belonging to the citizens of the United States of America, shall be admitted and hospitably received, in all the sea ports and harbours of the British territories in theEast Indies: and that the citizens of the said United States, may freely carry on a trade between the said territories and the said United States, in allarticles of which the importation or exportation respectively, to or from the said territories, shall not be entirely prohibited . ... The citizens of the United States shall pay for their vessels when admitted into the said ports no other or highertonnage duty than shall be payable on British vessels when admitted into theports of the United States. And they shall pay no other or higher duties or charges on the importation or exportation of the cargoes of the said vessels, than shall be payable on the same articles when imported or exported in British vessels. But it is expressly agreed, that the vessels of the United States shall not carry any of the articles exported by them from the said British territories, to any port or place, except to some Port or Place in America, where the same shall beunladen, and such regulations shall be adopted by both parties, as shall from time to time be found necessary to enforce the due and faithful observance of thisstipulation . ...

ART. XIV. There shall be between all thedominions of his Majesty in Europe, and the territories of the United States, a reciprocal and perfect liberty of commerce and navigation. The people and inhabitants of the two countries respectively, shall have liberty freely and securely, and without hindrance andmolestation, to come with their ships and cargoes to the lands, countries, cities, ports, places and rivers, within the dominions and territories aforesaid, to enter into the same, toresort there, and to remain and reside there, without any limitation of time. Also to hire and possess houses and warehouses for the purposes of their commerce, and generally the merchants and traders on each side, shall enjoy the most complete protection and security for their commerce. ...

ART. XV. It is agreed, that no other or higher duties shall be paid by the ships or merchandize of the one party in the ports of the other, than such as are paid by the like vessels or merchandize of all other nations. Nor shall any other or higher duty be imposed in one country on the importation of any articles the growth, produce or manufacture of the other, than are or shall be payable on the importation of the like articles being of the growth, produce, or manufacture of any other foreign country. Nor shall any prohibition be imposed, on the exportation or importation of any articles to or from the territories of the two parties respectively, which shall not equally extend to all other nations. ...

... it is agreed, that the United States will not impose any new or additional tonnage duties on British vessels. ...

ART. XVII. It is agreed that, in all cases where vessels shall be captured or detained on just suspicion of having on board enemy's property, or of carrying to the enemy any of the articles which arecontraband of war; the said vessel shall be brought to the nearest or most convenient port, and if any property of an enemy should be found on board such vessel, that part only which belongs to the enemy shall bemade prize, and the Vessel shall be at liberty to proceed with the remainder without anyimpediment . ...

ART. XIX. And that more abundant care may be taken for the security of the respective subjects and citizens of the contracting parties, and to prevent their suffering injuries by themen of war, orprivateers of either party, all commanders of ships of war and privateers, and all others the said subjects and citizens shallforbear doing any damage to those of the other party, or committing anyoutrage against them, and if they act to the contrary, they shall be punished, and shall also be bound in their persons and estates to makesatisfaction and reparation for all damages. ...

ART. XXII. It is expresslystipulated, that neither of the said contracting parties will order or authorize any acts ofreprisal against the other, on complaints of injuries or damages, until the said party shall first have presented to the other a Statement thereof, verified by competent proof and evidence, and demanded justice and satisfaction, and the same shall either have been refused or unreasonably delayed. ...

What happened next...

Surprising many Americans, the British did begin abandoning their Old Northwest forts. Therefore, the Jay Treaty, along with key U.S. military victories over Native Americans in the Old Northwest, opened up settlement across the Appalachian Mountains north of the Ohio River. The treaty also opened the door for a treaty with Britain's ally, Spain. Spain had agreed to help Britain fight against France in the European war. However, by 1795, Spain was out of money and ready to pull out of its commitment. The Spanish feared that backing out of the alliance would jeopardize their holdings in America; an angry Britain might attack and take over these lands. Spain controlled land west of the Mississippi River, all travel and trade going up and down the river, and the port of New Orleans. Spain also controlled Florida, which at that time included a strip of land running west along the Gulf of Mexico to present-day Louisiana. In addition, Spain claimed a large strip of land west of Georgia called the Yazoo Strip, land that the United States also claimed.

For years Spain had harassed western settlers who needed to transport goods and supplies on the Mississippi River. Spain collected fees on shipments going and coming through New Orleans. Spain also angered the United States by supplying guns and ammunition to Native Americans who were resisting U.S. settlement in the Yazoo Strip.

Spain decided the best way to prevent Britain and the United States from joining together to attack New Orleans was to gain U.S. friendship. The United States sent diplomat Thomas Pinckney (1750–1828) to Spain for negotiations. On October 27, 1795, the Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as the Pinckney Treaty, was signed. Spain gave up all claims to the Yazoo Strip and agreed to stop supporting Native American resistance against U.S. settlements. Even more important, the treaty granted Americans free use of the Mississippi River, eliminating fees at New Orleans. With the Jay Treaty and the Treaty of San Lorenzo in place, American settlement of the western lands accelerated rapidly.

Although shipping was risky for the United States in the mid- to late 1790s, trade continued to grow. The Jay Treaty opened up trade with Britain, and the Pinckney Treaty opened the Mississippi River for easy transportation of U.S. goods grown and produced west of the Appalachian Mountains. These goods were then shipped around Florida to the U.S. Atlantic coast and to foreign countries. While Britain and France continued their war, they ignored many of their worldwide trading partners. The United States filled the void. American ships replaced British and French ships in trade with the West Indies and European markets, and the U.S. economy grew rapidly. The bustling ports of New England, New York, and Philadelphia exported U.S. goods and goods that were brought up from the West Indies, shipping them to many foreign destinations. Meanwhile, Britain and France continued to seize U.S. ships, since the Jay Treaty only applied to trade between Britain and the United States. So Britain's navy could still seize U.S. ships bound for France and other countries, and France could still seize U.S. ships bound for Britain. Although hundreds more were seized, thousands of U.S. ships got safely through to their destinations.

The rise of U.S. trade increased the growth of American industries. Shipbuilding companies, warehouses, ports, banks, insurance companies covering cargo losses, manufacturers, and farmers whose products were exported all had rising profits. Profits were often invested in new U.S. manufacturing ventures and land expansion.

Within a few years, Americans' dismay over the Jay Treaty had somewhat subsided. The Federalists, in the form of Vice President John Adams (1735–1826), would win the presidential election of 1796, but their popularity was decreasing. The number of Democratic-Republicans continued to grow, and in 1800 Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the leader of the Democratic-Republicans, won the presidency by defeating the incumbent Federalist president Adams.

Did you know...

  • Although President Washington had hoped to keep the controversial terms of the Jay Treaty secret and avoid intense public debate, he was unsuccessful. Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769–1798), grandson of Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and editor of the Democratic-Republican newspaper Aurora, obtained a copy of the treaty and published a summary on June 29, 1795, for all to read.
  • Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who served as the U.S. secretary of the treasury in the Washington administration, was a strong supporter of the Jay Treaty. When news came that the treaty had been signed, Hamilton believed he had achieved his goals of strengthening relations with Britain and setting the United States on a course of economic and financial prosperity. Hamilton retired from public service in late January 1795, before the treaty was ratified. He remained the leader of the Federalist Party.
  • Most likely the reason Britain willingly gave up its forts in the Old Northwest in the mid-1790s, after refusing to do so in the mid-1780s, was a decline in the fur trade. By the 1790s, the area south of the Great Lakes was rapidly becoming "trapped out." So many animals had been trapped and skinned that the animal population and hence the number of furs available were rapidly decreasing.

Consider the following...

  • Conduct a debate over the Jay Treaty, with members of the class taking sides with either the Federalists or the Democratic-Republicans.
  • What policy did the British carry out against Americans on the high seas, and how did U.S. citizens feel about it?
  • In 1793, President George Washington declared a policy of neutrality, saying that the United States would not take sides with the British or the French in their European war. Consider why Washington later wanted the Jay Treaty approved. List the possible reasons. Do you think Washington's behavior indicated he was flexible and trying to promote the common good or simply weak and giving in to heavy Federalist pressure?

His Britannic Majesty: The king of England.

Garrisons: Troops stationed at forts.

Treaty of peace: The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution and granted the United States independence from Britain.

At their discretion: Whenever they desire.

Precincts or jurisdiction: Areas of legal authority.

Unmolested: Undisturbed.

Pass and repass: Travel back and forth.

Inland navigation: On lakes and rivers.

The two parties: Britain and the United States.

Ample: Open.

Intersected: Crossed.

Lake of the Woods: A lake located in southeastern Manitoba, southwestern Ontario, and northern Minnesota.

Amicable: Friendly.

Regulate the boundary line: Decide on a boundary line between Canada and the United States.

Bona fide contracted: Agreed to in good faith without deception.

The peace: The 1783 Treaty of Paris.

Lawful impediments: Legal obstacles created by laws passed.

Judicial: Court.

Creditors: People to whom money is owed.

Compensation: Repayment.

Under colour of authority or commissions from his Majesty: By the British navy or ships authorized by Britain.

Reciprocal: Shared.

Commerce: Trade.

East Indies: Malay islands and Southeast Asian countries.

Articles: Goods.

Tonnage duty: Fee per each ton of cargo.

Unladen: Unloaded.

Stipulation: Agreement.

Dominions: Territories.

Molestation: Harassment.

Resort: Frequently travel.

Contraband of war: Prohibited war supplies.

Made prize: Seized.

Impediment: Hindrance.

Men of war: British navy.

Privateers: Privately owned ships given authority by the military to fight or harass the enemy.

Forbear: Refrain from.

Outrage: Violence.

Satisfaction and reparation: Compensation and payment.

Stipulated: Agreed.

Reprisal: Retaliation.

For More Information


Bemis, Samuel F. Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Commager, Henry S., ed. Documents of American History. New York: F. S. Crofts and Company, 1943.

Freeman, Joanne. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Morris, Richard B., ed. John Jay. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Stahr, Walter. John Jay: Founding Father. London: Hambledon and London, 2005.

Jay, John

views updated May 21 2018

John Jay

Born December 12, 1745 (New York, New York)
Died May 17, 1829 (Bedford, New York)

Statesman, diplomat, Supreme Court chief justice

Although he originally opposed the idea of American independence from Britain, John Jay became one of the most important figures in the fight for independence and the shaping of the new nation. Showing exceptional intelligence, great dignity, boundless ability, and high moral integrity, Jay made invaluable contributions to the fledgling government of the United States of America. He held more prestigious public offices than any other person in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His many roles included serving as a foreign diplomat, a Supreme Court chief justice, and governor of New York. His self-confidence and uncompromising adherence to his beliefs while in office contributed to the strong character of the nation.

"This country and this people seem to have been made for each other."

Born into a privileged life

John Jay was born to Peter Jay and Mary Van Cortlandt Jay in New York City in December 1745. He was the sixth son among eight children in the family. Both of his parents came from very influential families in the colony of New York. His mother came from one of the large landowning Dutch families that settled the Hudson River valley. His grandfather, Augustus Jay, came to New York in 1686 from France. He was part of a group of French Protestants who faced religious persecution by the French Catholic government at the time; along with many others, he escaped imprisonment in France by boarding a ship to America. John Jay grew up hearing stories about the persecution of his French ancestors, and as a result, he would never trust the French government.

John Jay's father, Peter Jay, was a successful merchant, so young John grew up in a privileged setting of wealth and power. Through private tutors, he received a well-rounded education. John was bookish and very serious in demeanor, with a keen mind and an ability to speak in grand style. Some also saw him as cold, formal, and quiet, and frequently arrogant. He could also be very stubborn. He quickly graduated from King's College (later Columbia University) in 1760 with high honors; he was only fourteen years old. He spoke French, Greek, and Latin fluently. Jay was tall and slender and was frequently ill. His face was distinctive, with a prominent nose, high arched eyebrows, and a long chin.

A career of law and politics

In 1764, Jay began the study of law at a law office in New York City. He was admitted to the bar (legal profession) in 1768 and began his private law practice. For a while, he shared a practice with a past college mate Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813), like Jay a future U.S. diplomat. Jay took all kinds of legal cases and was financially successful in his work. His first public role came in 1773 when he served as secretary of a royal commission to settle a boundary dispute between the colonies of New York and New Jersey.

In April 1774, Jay married Sarah Van Brugh Livingston. Her father, William Livingston (1723–1790), was a large landowner and would serve as the governor of New Jersey during the American Revolution (1775–83). The Jays had seven children.

In 1774, Jay became a conservative member of the New York Committee of Correspondence, a committee responsible for sending out written information describing political viewpoints to similar committees in other colonies. It was a key means of sharing important information. He was also a delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774. At twenty-eight years of age, Jay was the second youngest member of Congress. He represented the wealthy colonial merchants who opposed independence from Britain. The merchants feared that a new, independent, democratic government (whose laws and functions are determined by the will of the majority) would mean mob rule and the loss of their property. However, Jay had one complaint about British rule: He did not like the new taxes Britain had imposed on the colonies. On this issue, he voted in favor of the decision Congress made to communicate their grievances to Britain. He personally drafted "The Address to the People of Great Britain," stating the colonists' claims. Jay also served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress meeting in 1775.

Jay becomes a Patriot

In 1776, Jay did not support the writing of the Declaration of Independence. However, once the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration, Jay joined fully with the Patriots (colonists who favored independence from Britain) to fight against British rule. Jay became a strong supporter of the revolutionary cause. The Jays, Livingstons, and Van Cortlandts were among the few wealthy families supporting the Patriot cause. After British forces invaded New York in 1776, Jay organized spy rings for the Continental Army and helped deliver cannons to troops led by General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2), who were defending New York.

After serving in the Continental Congress, Jay played a key role in the New York Provisional Congress. He drafted a constitution for the newly formed state of New York. In the new state government, Jay was appointed chief justice of the New York Supreme Court in 1777. In this role, he would be interpreting the state constitution—the constitution that he himself had drafted. Jay served on the court until 1779. During this period, he also served in the New York militia but never saw active service. A militia is an organized military force, made up of citizens, that serves in times of emergency.

While serving on the New York court, Jay returned to Philadelphia as a New York delegate to the Continental Congress in December 1778. The delegates elected Jay president of the Congress, and he held this position until September 1779, when he received an appointment to become the U.S. minister to Spain. This appointment by Congress began his diplomatic career.

The diplomat

Jay's mission as U.S. minister to Spain was to seek Spain's support for America's fight against the British monarchy. Spain refused to provide open support; however, Spanish officials were interested in keeping their foe Britain occupied in the turmoil, so they secretly supplied funding and arms.

While in Europe in May 1782, Jay received a message from Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1). Franklin was in Paris, France, trying to negotiate an end to the war with Britain, and he wanted Jay to come and assist him. They were joined by Massachusetts politician John Adams (1735–1826; see entry in volume 1). Jay did not waste time getting involved in the discussions: He immediately demanded British recognition of America's independence, even before a treaty was drafted, and it appeared that he had set back the sensitive negotiations that Franklin had been informally nurturing with the British. Along with Adams, Jay also convinced Franklin that they should conduct negotiations without coordinating with the French, contrary to directions from the Continental Congress.

After a difficult start, Jay's bold approach to negotiations unexpectedly proved successful. Britain had grown weary of the war, so the British negotiators agreed to the terms laid out by the Americans. The Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783, putting an official end to the American Revolution. Britain recognized America's independence and gave to the United States all rights to lands east of the Mississippi River, except for lands held by Spain in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. Jay returned home in July 1784 a national hero.

Foreign secretary

Upon the successful completion of the peace negotiations, Jay was offered the position of minister to Britain. However, he had been away from the United States for several years and was eager to return home, so he declined the appointment. Jay was eager to resume his private law practice and renew his involvement in New York social life. However, public service beckoned again. The Continental Congress appointed Jay secretary of foreign affairs under the new Articles of Confederation, the first U.S. constitution. Jay was clearly the most qualified U.S. citizen in foreign affairs and was a natural choice for the job. He accepted the appointment in the Confederation government and served throughout the remainder of the 1780s.

As secretary of foreign affairs, Jay regularly received reports from John Adams, the U.S. representative in Britain, and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1), the U.S. representative in France. Adams and Jefferson reported that Britain and France were treating the young United States with disrespect. Jay negotiated several trade treaties with various other countries during this time but found particular frustration in dealing with Britain as well as its longtime ally Spain, both of whom refused to establish trade relations. In addition, British troops remained at trading posts in the new Northwest Territory of the United States, despite Britain's peace treaty promise to vacate that area.

Spain was also causing problems for Jay. Spain continued occupying posts in the South on U.S. soil. In addition, Spain closed navigation of the Mississippi River to Americans, cutting off the principal route for transporting produce from frontier farms west of the Appalachians to the East Coast. Jay negotiated with Spanish diplomats from 1784 to 1789, but they could not come to an agreement. In 1786, Jay thought he was close to concluding a treaty with Spain; the treaty would have given Spain exclusive use of the Mississippi River for thirty years in exchange for expanded trade between the two nations and mutual recognition of U.S. and Spanish territories in North America. However, Americans in the South and West were enraged by the prospect of giving up navigation rights to the Mississippi, and negotiations ended. Those in the West and South never trusted Jay again.

Jay grew frustrated with the Confederation government, which had no power to enforce treaty measures and was too weak to protect the new U.S. boundaries. He and other government leaders began to lobby for a stronger central government that could deal with foreign issues.

Chief justice in a new government

Busy serving as foreign secretary, Jay was not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. However, once the new U.S. Constitution was adopted, Jay joined with fellow delegates James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2) and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1) to write a series of essays promoting New York's ratification (approval) of the Constitution. The essays were published in New York newspapers between October 1787 and May 1788. The articles later appeared together in a book titled The Federalist. Because he was ill at the time, Jay wrote only five of the eighty-five papers. His essays focused on foreign affairs and the Constitution.

Following ratification of the new constitution and the election of George Washington as the first president, a new national government was formed. In late 1789, Washington appointed Jay as the first chief justice of the newly formed U.S. Supreme Court, selecting him over Jay's longtime friend Robert Livingston. The Senate quickly confirmed Jay's appointment. Jay and two associate justices held the first meeting of the U.S. Supreme Court on February 1, 1790, in New York City. Jay continued serving in foreign affairs until March 1790, when Thomas Jefferson took over as secretary of state for the new government. During the Supreme Court's early years, the justices not only heard cases before that court, but were expect to preside over cases in federal courts that heard appeals (appellate courts) that were located around the nation. Therefore, one of the most demanding aspects of Jay's Supreme Court position was riding the circuit holding court in remote locations in New York and New England. Roads were poor if they existed at all.

As the nation's first chief justice, Jay established many rules and procedures for the Court. The most important case he heard was Chisholm v. Georgia in 1793. This case raised a key question of state sovereignty (freedom from external control). In his decision, Jay established the right of the federal courts to hear cases in which a citizen of one state sues another state government. This was the first Court opinion establishing the power of the federal government over state governments. However, many Americans were still apprehensive of a strong central government. This led Congress and the states to adopt the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which overturned the Court's decision in Chisholm. The new amendment denied the authority of federal courts in cases that involve an individual suing a state.

The Jay Treaty

As conflicts with Britain heated up again through the 1790s, President George Washington selected U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Jay to journey to Britain. Jay was to reach a peaceful settlement on several nagging issues: Britain's refusal to recognize U.S. neutrality rights to international trade; the continued presence of British troops at fur-trading posts on American soil in the Northwest Territory; British encouragement of Native American resistance to expansion of American settlement in the West; and Britain's continuing practice of capturing American sailors to serve on British warships, a practice called impressment. For their part, the British wanted to resolve the issue of unpaid debt, money that the United States owed Britain for damages caused during the American Revolution. In the peace treaty that ended that war, America had promised to pay this debt; however, it had failed to do so.

By the 1790s, Jay had established himself as the leading foreign diplomat of the young nation. Relations with Britain were a hot political issue in the United States. Supporters of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wanted retaliation against Britain for its actions as well as closer relations with France. Supporters of Alexander Hamilton wanted to expand trade relations with Britain and settle the differences. Hamilton's economic policies heavily relied on tax revenue on goods imported from Britain.

Jay sided with Hamilton and sought to reach a compromise with Britain. He spent the summer of 1794 negotiating with British foreign secretary Lord Grenville (1759–1834). Jay's goals were to gain British recognition of U.S. neutrality trading rights, convince the British to abandon the Northwest Territory forts, and open the British-held West Indies once again to American trade ships. Because the United States had almost no military to protect American interests and enforce treaties, Jay was negotiating from a weak position. Britain did agree to evacuate the forts, as it had already promised to do in 1783, and did open the West Indies to limited trade by small American commercial ships. The two nations also established claims commissions to determine payments of damages and debts on both sides. However, Britain steadfastly refused to recognize the U.S. proclaimed neutrality trade rights, and Jay promised not to interfere with British trade for at least ten years.

When the terms of the Jay Treaty reached the United States, Jefferson and his supporters were enraged. They accused Jay of selling out to Britain in order to protect Hamilton's economic programs. France felt betrayed that the United States had negotiated with Britain at all, because this violated an existing treaty between America and France that dated back to the American Revolution. Despite the uproar, President Washington signed the treaty, and the U.S. Senate ratified it. Though highly controversial, the treaty proved very beneficial to the young nation in maintaining financial stability. However, it also transformed the two political factions behind Jefferson and Hamilton into more-organized political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

While serving as chief justice, Jay was the Federalist candidate for governor of New York in 1792; his opponent was incumbent governor George Clinton (1739–1812; see entry in volume 1). Though Jay appeared to win, an election board threw out a number of ballots, claiming they were invalid. As a result, the election swung to Clinton. Jay continued to serve on the Supreme Court.

Back to Europe

Chief Justice Jay was still regarded as the leading expert in foreign affairs. However, in large part, Jay was reluctant to advise President Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton on current issues or participate in congressional debates over proposed bills. Jay believed in a strict separation of powers between the branches of government. He believed his main role on the Court was to rule on the constitutionality of cases.

Nonetheless, when France and Britain began warring against each other in 1793 and the United States needed to take an official position on the war, Jay drafted an important neutrality proclamation for President Washington. The proclamation asserted that the United States favored neither Britain nor France, and that the United States had a right to continue its profitable international trade as before. However, despite the proclamation, tensions remained with Britain. President Washington sent Jay to Britain to negotiate a settlement of several issues during the summer of 1794 (see box). The resulting agreement, known as the Jay Treaty, attracted severe criticism in the United States and greatly angered France. However, President Washington signed it, and the U.S. Senate ratified it. The treaty maintained peace and economic stability at a critical time in the nation's development.

New York governor

Upon his return from Britain in 1795, Jay discovered he had been nominated and elected governor of New York. He resigned his position on the Supreme Court and assumed his new office. Jay served as governor for six years. During that time, he pushed through key prison reforms and much needed canal construction projects. He also signed the state law abolishing slavery. By the 1800 elections, the rising tide of public support for presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson and other candidates of the Democratic-Republican Party strongly suggested that Jay would likely lose if he ran for reelection. Therefore, Jay decided it was time to retire from public service.

In the November 1800 presidential election, President John Adams, the Federalist candidate, lost his bid for reelection to Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republicans had also won a majority of seats in Congress. While he was finishing his term in office, President Adams did what he could to keep some Federalist influence in the government, specifically in the federal courts. Adams asked Jay if he would consider returning to the chief justice position on the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Oliver Ellsworth (1745–1807). However, Jay was determined to retire because of health problems, both his own and those of his wife. In addition, he thought the chief justice position held too little power and prestige. Adams next turned to Secretary of State John Marshall (1755–1835; see entry in volume 2), who accepted the job and later built it into a very powerful position.

Lengthy retirement

The Jays settled onto an 800-acre farm in Bedford, New York, a two-day ride from New York City. Jay was greatly saddened by the death of his wife in 1802, so soon after Jay had left public service. Jay spent twenty-eight years in retirement but stayed away from politics. He took an active role in church affairs and was elected president of the Westchester Bible Society in 1818 and the American Bible Society in 1821. Jay died in May 1829.

For More Information


Bemis, Samuel F. Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.

Combs, Jerald A. The Jay Treaty: Political Background of the Founding Fathers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Morris, Richard B. John Jay, the Nation, and the Court. Boston: Boston University Press, 1967.

Morris, Richard B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985.

Web Sites

"The Federalist Papers." University of Oklahoma Law School.http://www.law.ou.edu/hist/federalist/ (accessed on August 14, 2005).

"Jay's Treaty." Archiving Early America.http://earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/jaytreaty/ (accessed on August 14, 2005).

Jay, John

views updated May 14 2018

John Jay

Born December 12, 1745
New York, New York
Died May 17, 1829 Bedford, New York

First chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyer, diplomat

John Jay was a highly respected lawyer who distinguished himself in several different high state and federal offices, before, during, and after the Revolutionary War (1775–83). He helped negotiate two major treaties with foreign nations that were of tremendous benefit to the newly formed United States. As chief justice, his fairness and courage in making unpopular decisions secured the public's respect for the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Jay was born in 1745 in New York City. He was the eighth child of Peter Jay, a merchant, and Mary Van Cortlandt, whose ancestors were some of the original Dutch settlers of New York. Peter Jay was widely known and respected as a man of wealth and good character.

Little has been written about John Jay's early years. He was raised in the Protestant religion on his father's comfortable farm in Rye, New York. He was educated at home before leaving at age fourteen to attend King's College (now Columbia University) in New York City.

After graduating from college in 1764, Jay prepared for a career in the law. He did it in the usual colonial way, by serving as a clerk for an already established lawyer and studying in his free time. In 1768 he opened his own law office in New York City.

In 1769 Jay did legal work for the New York–New Jersey Boundary Commission. In those days, the legal boundaries of the colonies were not clearly defined. Each colony had its own laws, and disputes often arose over which laws had to be obeyed and where. Jay found these issues fascinating, and he learned a lot about how to settle legal squabbles. This early training proved invaluable to him when he later had to settle disputes between the United States and foreign nations.

Jay became well known among his peers for his fine legal mind and his hardworking ways. He was a highly moral young man with a strong religious faith. Those close to him knew Jay as cheerful and possessing a good sense of humor.

Marries into wealth; opposes Revolutionary movement

In John Jay's time, much of the land in the colony of New York was owned by about twenty wealthy and powerful families, whose members were descended from the early Dutch or English settlers. The families were connected by marriage. Jay's mother belonged to one such family. With his marriage to Sarah Livingston in 1774, Jay joined another powerful family: Sarah was the daughter of the governor of New Jersey and had other wealthy connections. Jay and Sarah were devoted to one another. Jay's future seemed bright.

Back in 1686, John Jay's Protestant grandfather, Auguste Jay, had been forced to flee his French homeland because of religious persecution and fear of imprisonment by French Catholics. As a result, the Jay family had no love for either the French or Catholics. Unlike the majority of colonists (who had English backgrounds), Jay's family had no particular affection for England either. Still, when talk of American independence from England began in the 1760s, Jay did not at first support the movement.

As a lawyer, Jay was intimately familiar with the legal issues involved in the dispute between England and the colonies. He believed that many policies adopted by the British between 1765 and 1774 were violations of colonists' rights. Among those policies were British efforts to restrict the power of colonial lawmaking bodies and courts.

Jay saw the struggle between England and America as a fight by the colonists for their rights as Englishmen. He was appalled by colonists who expressed their anger through violence and by persecuting Loyalists (people who remained loyal to England). New York had a great many Loyalists.

Attends First and Second Continental Congresses

In 1774 Great Britain adopted a series of measures called the Intolerable Acts. They were intended to punish the citizens of Boston, Massachusetts, for their violent protests against British taxation. Spurred by sympathy for Boston's sufferings, delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies met on September 5, 1774, for the First Continental Congress. Jay gave up his law practice and went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as New York's representative in Congress.

At first Jay, like the majority of delegates to the Congress, was not in favor of declaring independence. He feared it would lead to mob rule and chaos. Jay helped prepare several documents sent by Congress to England's King George III see entry. The documents outlined colonial grievances, urged peace, and threatened to end trade with England. Jay's major contribution was an address "to the oppressed inhabitants of Canada" asking Canadians to join the colonists in opposing British policies (they did not). He became known as a skillful writer and a man who favored reasoning and compromise over hasty action.

When King George did not respond to Congress's peace overtures, Jay decided to support the patriots. He worked hard for the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which was approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 3, 1776.

With the signing of the Declaration, the former colonies were now states. In 1777 Jay was back in New York to help his state write a new constitution. New York's Loyalists were shocked by Jay's support of the Revolution. But this did not stand in the way of his being named chief justice of the New York supreme court. In his short time there, he unhappily presided over many war-crimes trials (including murder, assault, and theft). Jay was glad to return to Philadelphia in 1778 to become president of the Continental Congress. He assisted in many of the complicated tasks of running the Revolutionary War.

Sent on mission to Spain

By 1779 it was clear that America needed foreign aid in its struggle with Great Britain. America had very few men who had experience in negotiating with foreign governments. Despite his youth and inexperience, thirty-four-year-old John Jay was appointed America's minister to Spain. He resigned his positions as New York's chief justice and president of the Continental Congress, and in late October 1779, he set sail for Spain to begin his new career in diplomacy.

The voyage to Spain was a rough one, and Jay was terribly seasick. His ship stopped at an island in the Caribbean, where Jay saw slaves being cruelly treated. He decided that if he ever had the chance, he would do what he could to end slavery in America.

Jay had little luck with the Spanish. Spain did enter the war against Great Britain as an ally of France, but Spain refused to recognize American independence and would not ally itself with the United States. Nor would Spain accept Jay as a representative of an independent nation. Jay was insulted both for himself and his country. He was upset with France, too, for not helping him out in his dealings with the Spanish.

Negotiates Treaty of Paris ending American Revolution

When the war ended in 1781, Jay was still in Spain. Benjamin Franklin see entry was in France, and he asked Jay to join him in negotiating the Treaty of Paris that would officially end the Revolutionary War. Jay went, but he was still angry with both Spain and France. He was further upset when France tried to push its own agenda in the peace negotiations. He believed that France was trying to win favors for itself from Great Britain, favors that would hurt America. When the complicated negotiating was all over, Jay, Franklin, and John Adams see entry had gotten very favorable terms for America. American independence was recognized, and America's western borders were extended to the Mississippi River. According to historian Richard B. Morris, "Jay's diplomatic achievements at Paris in 1782 still stand unrivalled in the annals of American diplomacy." Morris called the Treaty of Paris one of "the two most advantageous treaties ever negotiated for the United States."

John Jay returned home to a hero's welcome. While abroad, he had learned enough about the Old World that he wanted to keep America out of its clutches. Upon his arrival, though, he was informed that the Articles of Confederation (the forerunner of the Constitution) had just been adopted, and he was the new U.S. secretary for foreign affairs.

Almost at once Jay realized that he could not carry out his duties under the Articles of Confederation. The articles called for a loose union of all the states. There was no central government with powers to make and enforce treaties with foreign governments. Before Jay could do anything to settle disputes with Great Britain and Spain, he had to get directions from Congress, and the way the government was organized, congressmen could never agree on any directions.

Works to get Constitution ratified; suffers illness, injury

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 drafted a Constitution that proposed the strong central government that Jay favored. He could not attend the convention, but when the document was sent around to the states for ratification (approval), Jay worked hard for its passage in New York. To convince New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, Jay worked with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (see entries) to produce eighty-five newspaper articles that described why the Articles of Confederation were inadequate and explained the proposed Constitution in depth. The papers were later published in book form as The Federalist. The Federalist is still the best explanation of the U.S. Constitution.

The word "federalist" referred to the belief in a strong central government. The Constitution was opposed by "anti-federalists," men such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Samuel Adams (see entries). They had many objections to a strong central government. According to Richard Morris, Jay was "committed to the ideals of a republic in which the people, directed by a virtuous [moral] and educated elite, would govern, and to a national government with power to act."

While the debate over the Constitution was going on, Jay suffered a crippling bout of arthritis (painful joints). Before he had completely recovered, he was struck on the head when members of a mob that had gathered outside the New York City jail began throwing stones. The mob was protesting the then-new concept of doctors performing autopsies (examinations of dead bodies to determine the cause of death). The doctors fled for safety reasons into the jailhouse; Jay was on his way to help rescue them. For a time it was feared that he had suffered permanent brain damage, but he finally recovered.

The Constitution went into effect in 1789. George Washington see entry was elected the nation's first president and assumed office in New York, then the nation's capital. Washington appointed Jay the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. When arguments arise, the Supreme Court has the last word on the meaning of all U.S. laws and the Constitution.

Jay used his time on the Supreme Court to stress the importance of the states giving way to the authority of the federal government. He also emphasized the importance of treaties of war, peace, and trade. Jay was still serving as chief justice in 1794 when President Washington asked him to go to England and negotiate a treaty.

Jay's Treaty

For more than ten years, tensions had been building between the British and America over the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris (ending the Revolutionary War). The British complained that America had not honored its end of the bargain—it had not paid pre-war debts to British merchants and had not paid Loyalists for property taken from them during the war. Therefore, the British were refusing to withdraw their soldiers from forts on the American frontier. Then the British Navy seized American ships at sea, and the two countries nearly went to war. Jay was sent to try and restore good relations between the two countries.

In the treaty that bears his name, Jay got the British to agree to withdraw their troops, some trade agreements were made, and more or less friendly relations were restored. But Jay's Treaty was seen at home as favoring the British, and it was not popular. Dummies representing Jay were hanged and burned in his home town and he was widely criticized. Still, he managed to keep the young country out of war until the time came when America was better able to defend itself.

On his return from England in 1795, Jay retired from the position of Supreme Court justice. He then assumed the governorship of New York—in spite of Jay's Treaty, Jay was so popular in New York that he was elected without having to run for office. He served two three-year terms. To his great satisfaction, he helped pass a law that would gradually do away with slavery in New York.

After Jay left the governorship, then-President John Adams asked him to return to the Supreme Court, but Jay refused, indicating that he was too tired and in poor health. Jay retired to his estate in Bedford, New York, where he lived quietly until his death in 1829.

In an encyclopedia article about Jay, Mark Boatner quoted historian Samuel Flagg Bemis: "Jay was a very able man but not a genius." In personal character "he was second to none of the [founding] Fathers."

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M. "Jay, John" and "Jay's Treaty" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 551–53.

Combs, Jerald A. "Jay, John" in American National Biography. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, vol. 11, pp. 891–94.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Spy. London: J. T. Devison, 1821.

Morris, Richard B. John Jay, the Nation and the Court. Boston: Boston University Press, 1967, pp. x, 28–9, 37.

Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers. New York: Harper & Row, 1965, pp. 2–4, 206, 282.

Morris, Richard B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985.

Web Sites

"The Indispensable Mr. Jay." [Online] Available http://www.thehistorynet.com/ (accessed on September 29, 1999).

Sally Jay, Toast of Two Continents

Sarah "Sally" Jay, beloved wife of John Jay and mother of his seven children, was beautiful, charming, and lively. She brought to their marriage not only money and family connections but also a pleasing personality. Her husband, whose own personality in public was one of cold formality, was open and loving with his wife; still, she always called him Mr. Jay. In the early days of their marriage, the Jays were often separated as John Jay went about the business of making America an independent nation. While apart, they wrote to each other three times a week. One of John Jay's letters to his wife concluded with these words: "depend upon it, nothing but actual imprisonment will be able to keep me from you."

When John Jay began the diplomatic phase of his career, Sally Jay often traveled with him. By then she was known and liked by many prominent Revolutionary figures. When she accompanied Jay on his failed trip to Spain (1779–82), General George Washington sent her a lock of his hair as a going-away gift. In Madrid, Spain, the Jays suffered the tragedy of the death of their first daughter at the age of four weeks. Their young son had remained at home.

When Jay went to France in 1782 to help negotiate a peace treaty, Sally followed soon after, bringing their newborn daughter, Maria. In 1783, she gave birth to Ann in Paris. Sally was the only wife of an American peace commissioner to be present at the peace talks in Paris. She loved Paris, and Parisians loved her. She was soon involved in the active social life at the court of King Louis XVI see entry. Sally is said to have strongly resembled the king's wife, Marie-Antoinette, and her public appearances caused quite a commotion.

When the Jays returned to the United States in 1783, they built a three-story stone house on Broadway in New York City. Sally was a popular hostess, and invitations to her dinner parties were sought after. The Jays had a second home on over nine hundred acres of farming land in Bedford, New York, then a two-day ride from New York City. Jay retired there in 1801; the next year Sally died. Jay then occupied himself with "conversation, books, and recollections" until his death. Jay's two sons, Peter Augustus and William, had distinguished careers and carried on the family name. Five generations of the Jay family lived in the home, which is preserved today as the John Jay Homestead.

Historian Richard Morris wrote that Sally Jay brought a "light touch" to her marriage that balanced "Jay's deadly earnestness and strong sense of responsibility." Morris noted that John Jay was a loving parent to his own children and also took care of four siblings who were either mentally or physically handicapped as well as many other members of his large family.

Jay, John

views updated May 29 2018


Born on 12 December 1745, John Jay was an active leader of the Revolution and a key figure in the founding of the nation. During the period of the early Republic he served in Congress, as a diplomat, as chief justice of the United States, and as governor of New York. He was also a co-author of the Federalist Papers and president of the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves.

Jay's grandfather was a Huguenot who had been imprisoned in France before escaping to America. His father, Peter Jay, was a successful merchant; his mother, Mary Van Cortlandt, came from a Dutch patroon family in the Hudson Valley, one of the most aristocratic families in the American colonies. Jay graduated from King's College (now Columbia University) in 1764 and was admitted to the bar four years later. By the eve of the Revolution, he was a prosperous and effective lawyer, who, unlike most New York attorneys, and most members of the wealthy landed gentry, was a committed Whig. In 1774 he increased his status and access to power by marrying Sarah Livingston, daughter of one of the leading families in New Jersey, whose father, William, would be a signer of the Constitution and a governor of his state. The couple would have seven children, including William Jay, a future judge and abolitionist.

In 1774 Jay was elected to New York City's Committee of Correspondence and later as one of the colony's five delegates to the First Continental Congress. Jay was relatively conservative within the Congress, but went along with, and supported, the more radical members who denounced acts of Parliament as "unconstitutional" and urged local militias to arm themselves. Jay drafted the Address to the People of Great Britain, which Congress used to justify its radical moves. Here he rejected the idea that Parliament could tax the colonists or subordinate them within the imperial economy. Americans, he asserted, would never become the "hewers of wood or drawers of water" for their English cousins.

Jay had returned to New York by early 1776 and was a member of the colonial legislature. In that position he opposed declaring independence but after July 1776 was fully committed to the Revolution and independence. He helped obtain munitions for the troops, investigate traitors, and organize spies. More important, in 1777 he helped write New York's first constitution. Like many others in the founding generation, Jay had experience with constitution-making well before the United States wrote its constitution in 1787. The New York document of 1777 was the only constitution of the period to have no religious tests for officeholding, reflecting his French Huguenot background and his respect for religious freedom. On the other hand, the constitution also required that foreigners seeking naturalization as citizens of New York renounce allegiance to any foreign "prince or potentate," an anti-Catholic measure that reflected his Huguenot ancestry and his family's memory of Catholic persecution.

With the adoption of the New York Constitution, Jay became chief justice of the state's Supreme Court while at the same time serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was elected president of the Congress in 1778 and helped negotiate the treaty that led to the French alliance. In 1779 Congress made him minister plenipotentiary to Spain, where he arrived with his wife in 1780. This first diplomatic mission for Jay was mostly a failure. Spain refused to give him diplomatic status, recognize the new American nation, or acknowledge Americans' navigation rights on the Mississippi. The government in Madrid feared—correctly, as it would turn out—that American independence would be the first step leading to the destruction of Spain's New World empire.

In the spring of 1782 Benjamin Franklin asked Jay to come to Paris to help negotiate the treaty of peace with England. Jay declined to formally meet with the English envoys, however, because their credentials directed them to meet with representatives of the American "colonies" and not with the United States. Franklin ultimately joined Jay in taking this position, and the British acquiesced, getting new instructions from London. This position put him at odds with America's French allies, who urged a more speedy negotiation. Jay soon came to suspect that France was attempting to negotiate a separate peace with England, and on his own, without consulting Franklin, contacted an official in Britain to derail this possibility. Ultimately, Jay, Franklin, and John Adams, who had just arrived from the United States, negotiated a separate peace with England that recognized American nationhood and secured rights to all British possessions on the continent south of Canada, including all territory bordering the Mississippi River. The skillful negotiations of Jay, Adams, and Franklin led in 1783 to the comprehensive Treaty of Paris signed by Britain, France, Spain, and the world's newest nation, the United States of America.

Jay triumphantly returned to his homeland and was immediately appointed secretary for foreign affairs in the government under the Articles of Confederation, which had been ratified in his absence. This made the American ministers to France (Thomas Jefferson) and England (John Adams) his subordinates. Despite the weakness of the Confederation government, in 1786 Jay negotiated a trade agreement with Spain, known as the Jay-Gardoqui Treaty, in which the United States agreed to give up any navigational rights on the Mississippi for thirty years. This was perhaps Jay's greatest mistake in this period, because it infuriated Southerners, who believed the New Yorker had sacrificed their vital interest in access to the Mississippi in return for trading rights that helped only the Northeast. Congress did not ratify the treaty, but Southerners continued to mistrust Jay for the rest of his career.

Throughout the convention period Jay remained frustrated by the weakness of the national government. Thus he enthusiastically supported the Constitutional Convention of 1787, although he was not a delegate. After the convention he joined James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in writing essays to gain support for the new Constitution in New York. These became The Federalist Papers. Jay became ill shortly after the project began and wrote only five of the essays. When the Constitution was ratified, the new president, George Washington, nominated Jay to be the first chief justice of the United States. He held that post until 1795, but his legacy was minimal. His most important decision, in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), in which he interpreted the Constitution to allow a citizen of one state to sue another state, outraged almost all the states and led to the Eleventh Amendment (1798), which reversed this ruling.

More significant than his jurisprudence was Jay's diplomacy. In 1793 he drafted Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality as war broke out in Europe. In 1794 he went to England at Washington's request and successfully negotiated what became known as Jay's Treaty. Under this treaty England finally vacated forts on the American side of the Great Lakes; the treaty also helped the United States obtain British support for access to the Mississippi. However, the settlement signaled a tilt toward Britain in its emerging conflict with France, and supporters of Jefferson attacked it as pro-British and pro-North. Ultimately, however, the Senate ratified most of the treaty.

While in England Jay had been elected governor of New York, and when he returned to the United States he resigned from the Supreme Court to become chief executive of his home state. He held this position for two terms, retiring in 1801. While governor he signed into law a gradual abolition act (1799) that led to the end of slavery in the state. In 1800 he refused to follow Hamilton's suggestion that he alter the way the state chose its presidential electors, in order to secure the electors for Adams. The end result was that New York, and the election, went to Jefferson. The lame duck Adams offered the chief justiceship to Jay, but he declined. Adams then gave the position to John Marshall. Jay then retired to his home in Westchester County, after more than twenty-five years of public service at home and abroad. He died 17 May 1829.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; Adams, John; Articles of Confederation; Chisholm v. Georgia; Constitution: Ratification of; Constitutional Convention; Constitutionalism: State Constitution Making; Emancipation and Manumission; Federalist Papers; Founding Fathers; French; Hamilton, Alexander; Jefferson, Thomas; Jay's Treaty; Madison, James; Supreme Court; Treaty of Paris .


Combs, Jerald A. The Jay Treaty: Political Battleground of the Founding Fathers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Monaghan, Frank. John Jay: Defender of Liberty. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935; New York: AMS Press, 1972.

Morris, Richard B., Floyd M. Shumway, Ene Sirvet, and Elaine G. Brown, eds. John Jay. Vol. 1: The Making of a Revolutionary: Unpublished Papers, 1745–1780. Vol. 2: The Winning of the Peace: Unpublished Papers, 1780–1784. New York: Harper and Row, 1975–1980.

Paul Finkelman

John Jay

views updated May 21 2018

John Jay

John Jay (1745-1829), American diplomat and politician, guided American foreign policy from the end of the Revolution until George Washington's first administration was under way. Jay headed the U.S. Supreme Court during its formative years.

Long accustomed to a colonial status, Americans were ill-prepared to negotiate with foreign powers after the Revolution. The handful of men with diplomatic skill who emerged worked from a difficult position as the new nation experienced crises of credit and unity. John Jay's tenacity helped him survive the sectional battles and placed him in the inner councils of the Federalist party. Inclined to favor northern interests, he worked in a trying atmosphere until the Constitutional Convention of 1787 set a firmer tone for both domestic and diplomatic concerns. Jay's treaty with England, though highly controversial, probably avoided war. As chief justice, he gave the Supreme Court a national approach under the new Constitution.

John Jay was born on Dec. 12, 1745, in New York; he was the eighth child in a wealthy merchant family. Descended from French-Dutch stock and reared in the Huguenot tradition, Jay had few of the sentimental ties with England that made some Americans ambivalent in their allegiance after 1765. He graduated from King's College (later Columbia University) and trained in the law by a 5-year apprenticeship.

Admitted to the bar in 1768, Jay was briefly in partnership with Robert R. Livingston. Before 1774 Jay served on a royal commission formed to settle a boundary dispute between New York and a neighboring state, thus gaining his first experience as a negotiator. As a member of the "Moot Club" in New York, he associated with the lawyers who led the resistance movement against England a few years later. He married the beautiful and ambitious Sarah Livingston, daughter of William Livingston, on April 28, 1774.

Coming of Revolution

Almost before his honeymoon was over, Jay was serving on the New York Committee of Fifty-one, organized to control local anti-British measures. The committee manifesto, reportedly drafted by Jay, urging a convocation of deputies from all the Colonies to aid Boston and seek a "security of our common rights," led to the First Continental Congress. The cautious tone of the manifesto, however, brought some criticism from more militant groups that favored immediate boycott of British goods.

The Congress began Sept. 4, 1774; as Jay saw it, the Colonies were bound to try negotiations, to suspend commerce with Great Britain if these failed, and to go to war only when all other methods proved futile. Prudent to the point of timidity, Jay favored the narrowly defeated Galloway Plan of reconciliation. In Congress, Jay won a reputation as a skillful writer and moderate Whig, qualities that bore him into the New York Convention of 1775 and back to the Second Continental Congress. Meanwhile, the first battles of the Revolution at Lexington-Concord made discussion of a peaceful solution academic.

Jay's capacity for hard work brought him into the vortex of the congressional struggle. He served on the committee that drafted the July 6 declaration justifying armed resistance against England, but he also worked for one last attempt at reconciliation. By November 1775 he was on a secret congressional committee charged with engendering friendship abroad.

In May 1776, upon his return to New York, Jay cautiously supported a motion that disavowed any declaration favoring independence from Great Britain. However, the votes of his colleagues back in Philadelphia compelled Jay to submerge his views and work for independence.

President of the Continental Congress

In 1777 Jay took a leading part in drafting the New York constitution, an essentially conservative document peppered with Jay's concept of justice and blended with the mercantile spirit of the Dutch-Huguenot merchants. Jay himself became chief justice of New York in the transition government, but because of wartime circumstances the court functioned in desultory fashion. In 1778 he was chosen president of the Continental Congress. While Congress tottered on the verge of bankruptcy, many private citizens made paper fortunes in land dealings and mercantile speculations. Jay wrote Washington that there was "as much intrigue in this State House as in the Vatican, but as little secrecy as in a boarding-school." On Aug. 10, 1779, Jay resigned as chief justice of New York, and on Oct. 1 he left the Congress to resume his law practice.

Instead of returning to private life, however, Jay was appointed minister to Spain in October 1779. He was instructed to seek a commercial treaty with Charles III which would establish American rights to Mississippi navigation and to secure a sizable loan. The Spanish court withheld formal recognition (possibly because of its own colonial interests), and Jay ended his mission in May 1782 on a note of failure.

Sectional jealousy had made the negotiations with Spain difficult, for New England congressmen were eager to trade away navigation rights on the Mississippi provided their fisheries gained a Spanish market. Jay showed little sympathy for the Kentuckians, who insisted that they needed a waterway to market their products, and ultimately their anger brought into focus the conflict of interests between the North and South. Jay found the Spanish ministry too arrogant to negotiate anyway, and he journeyed to Paris in June 1782 for the preliminary peace negotiations then in motion. Suspicious of French motives, Jay led the American commissioners in Paris to sign a separate agreement with England, in violation of their instructions from Congress. The French were not pleased.

Secretary of Foreign Affairs

Jay declined posts as minister to both France and Great Britain, but Congress would not permit him to retire from public service. In July 1784 he was appointed secretary of foreign affairs, although New York had also elected him to serve in Congress. Jay resigned the congressional seat and took the foreign affairs assignment.

Jay's immediate concerns as foreign secretary were the British occupation of western posts (in defiance of a treaty) and the festering Mississippi problem. Jay made indiscreet remarks supporting British complaints that they would hold the forts until prewar debts were paid, and the Spanish emissary, Diego de Gardoqui, reported that Jay was "a very self-centered man" with a vain and domineering wife. The Spanish emissary had instructions that permitted negotiation of a treaty that would have pleased the North because it promised hard cash for fish but would have kept the gateway to the West closed. The gift of a prized stallion from Charles III to Jay may have been only incidental; at any rate, Jay decided to recommend concessions which the Spaniards believed would restrict America's western expansion.

Jay explained the commercial treaty to Congress in August but did not mention the military alliance Gardoqui also sought. Congress, voting along sectional lines, approved the pact, but by less than the required two-thirds majority. Tempers on both sides were heated, and the matter was unresolved when the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification.

The Federalists

Though not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Jay was to be an outspoken supporter of its handiwork. He joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in supplying articles for New York newspapers in support of the Constitution under the pen name "Publius." Of these Federalist papers, Jay wrote Publius 2, 3, 4, 5, and 63. He might have contributed more but for an injury received in the "Doctor's Riot" of April 1788.

Jay recovered in time to write An Address to the People of New York, which pointed out the unique dangers inherent in New York's failure to ratify the Constitution. Such a prospect was likely, as a 2-to-1 Antifederalist majority had been elected to go to the state ratifying convention scheduled for June. Jay himself was a delegate from New York and, with Hamilton, worked a political miracle: the convention voted for ratification by a slender majority. The Federalist victory was tempered by instructions to Jay to prepare a circular letter to all the states seeking a second constitutional convention. Though some Federalists feared that this device would create trouble, its effect was dissipated by the general goodwill apparent in the winter of 1788/1789.

Supreme Court

In the interim period Jay continued to serve as foreign secretary to the expiring Continental Congress, more as a caretaker than a policy maker. American relations with France had remained generally on an excellent footing, but Jay's policy toward the Barbary pirates was ineffective. Jay served as acting secretary of state until Thomas Jefferson returned from France and assumed the office in March 1790. Meanwhile, George Washington had prevailed on Jay to accept the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court. Jay held this office until 1796 and presided over several fundamental cases.

While still chief justice, Jay undertook negotiations to end Anglo-American differences stemming from irritating events that had followed their 1783 peace treaty. Known to history as Jay's Treaty, the new document bore Jay's signature, but it was chiefly the work of Alexander Hamilton, whose advice and information leaks allowed the British diplomats to move confidently. Jay became a special envoy at Washington's request. He left for England in 1794 and signed a treaty with Lord Grenville that gained a British promise to evacuate western posts and negotiate boundaries but made considerable concessions to British creditors and to the British concept of neutrality. France interpreted the treaty as a direct rebuff, and its hostile reception in America strengthened the rising opposition to Washington's government by followers of Thomas Jefferson. The treaty was ratified by the Senate after a stormy debate.

Meanwhile, Jay had been elected governor of New York. Four years earlier Jay had won the popular vote for governor, but a legislative board had nullified his election. His victory in 1795 was clear-cut, however, and Jay gave up his Court position to serve in his last public office. His administration (1795-1801) was conservative and consolidating, marked by a refusal in 1800 to rig an election at Hamilton's suggestion. After two terms Jay announced his retirement and declined the offer to resume his old place on the Supreme Court. Within a year after his long-delayed return to Bedford, N.Y., Jay's wife (who had seven children) died. But for this, Jay's long retreat from public life bore out his repeated expectations of a pleasant "domestic life in rural leisure passed." He died on May 7, 1829, at Bedford.

Further Reading

Frank Monaghan, John Jay (1935), is readable but uncritical. A good short account is in Samuel Flagg Bemis, ed., The American Secretaries of State, vol. 1 (1927). Also valuable is Bemis's Jay's Treaty (1923; rev. ed. 1962). See also Henry P. Johnston, ed., Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay (4 vols., 1890-1893).

Additional Sources

Johnson, Herbert Alan, John Jay, colonial lawyer, New York: Garland Pub., 1989.

McLean, Jennifer P., The Jays of Bedford: the story of five generations of the Jay family who lived in the John Jay Homestead, Katonah, N.Y.: Friends of John Jay Homestead, 1984.

Pellew, George, John Jay, New York: Chelsea House, 1980. □

Jay, John (1745-1829)

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Jay (1745-1829)


First chief justice of the supreme court

Early Years. John Jay was born on 12 December 1745 in New York City. The son of a prosperous merchant family and nephew of a judge, Jay benefited from a solid and well-rounded education. He graduated from Kings College (now Columbia University) in 1760 fluent in French, Greek, and Latin. Jay began his apprenticeship in the law in 1764, serving as clerk to Benjamin Kissam, and soon became known for quickness of mind and the strength of his reasoning. After being licensed to practice law on 26 October 1768, he began a partnership with Robert Livingston, a friend since their college days. Jay and Livingston became a preeminent New York law firm, taking on all manner of cases and building important reputations.

Public Service. Jays public career began in 1774 as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. There followed afterward a virtual explosion of public service. In 1775 he attended the Second Continental Congress and served on the New York Provincial Congress. The following year Jay collaborated with Gouverneur Morris and William Duer to draft a new state constitution for New York. Jay served as chief justice of New Yorks Supreme Court from 1777 to 1779 and in 1778 served as president of the Continental Congress. He was sent to Paris in 1782, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, to negotiate a peace treaty with England. Upon his return to America in 1784 he was named Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

Staunch Federalist. The significant question of those first years of independence was whether the former colonies, now loosely connected by the unsatisfactory Articles of Confederation, should adopt a new constitution in order to form a more perfect union. Jay joined with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to write The Federalist (1788), a series of newspaper essays that addressed the question. Overcome by illness in the fall of 1787, Jay wrote only five of the eighty-five papersnumbers 2 through 5 and 64. Nevertheless, he penned one of the most memorable lines of the series. In essay number 2 he wrote This country and this people seem to have been made for each other.

Supreme Court. Jays contributions to the formation and development of the new nation, and his renown as a lawyer, made him a clear candidate for selection to the Supreme Court. President George Washington, who had been lobbied by Livingston and others for the post of chief justice, turned to Jay for this high honor. In his letter of appointment to Jay, Washington wrote: In nominating you for the important station which you now fill, I not only acted in conformity to my best judgment, but I trust I did a grateful thing to the good citizens of these United States. Jay accepted Washingtons appointment and was quickly confirmed by the Senate in late 1789. He joined with Associate Justices William Cushing and James Wilson for the first meeting of the Supreme Court in New York City on 1 February 1790.

Tenure. Jays service as Americas first chief justice is largely unremarkable. Few cases of any importance came before the Supreme Court during his tenure. Much time and energy went into the grueling requirement that the justices ride the circuit, that is, travel throughout a designated region to hold court in places not easily accessible. Jays circuit assignment required him to travel throughout New York and New England, a challenging task in a time when roads were either poor or nonexistent. Perhaps Jays most important contribution as chief justice was his firm but polite refusal to advise President Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on questions of public policy. Jays refusal affirmed the separation of powers.

Test Case. The most significant decision to come before the Jay Court, and the first great case to be decided by that body, occurred in 1793. Chisholm v. Georgia raised important issues of state sovereignty. The question to be decided by the Court was whether a citizen of another state could sue the State of Georgia in federal court. Jay and the Court (except Judge James Iredell) said yes, that Georgia had abandoned its sovereignty when it joined the Union and thus could be sued. This first expression of federal primacy caused a stir throughout the states and prompted congressional reversal through the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment. In a less celebrated case Jay wrote the Courts opinion in Glass v. The Sloop Betsey (1794), where the question was whether foreign consuls or U.S. courts had authority over captured vessels brought to American ports by foreign ships. Jay struck an important blow for American sovereignty when he held that foreign consuls had no admiralty jurisdiction in the United States.

Treaty. Washington sent Jay to England in 1794 to negotiate several matters still outstanding between the new nation and the old mother country. Antagonism was particularly strong over British trade restrictions in the Caribbean and boundary lines in the Northwest. Jays Treaty was roundly criticized by many Americans who believed he had given too much away. The most notorious item was Jays agreement that American molasses, sugar, cotton, and coffee would not be shipped to Europe. The Senate adopted the treaty in the summer of 1795, but without the offending trade restrictions. That same year Jay resigned as chief justice to become governor of New York, a post he held until 1801.

Reappointment. On 18 December 1800 President John Adams offered Jay reappointment as chief justice to replace Oliver Ellsworth. In his letter to Jay, President Adams urged him to accept the position for a second time in order to maintain a Federalist point of view at the highest levels of government. The firmest security we can have against the effects of visionary schemes will be in a solid judiciary, wrote Adams, and nothing will cheer the hopes of the best men so much as your acceptance of this appointment. Jay declined the honor. The rigors of riding the circuit and the relative lack of consequence of court proceedings up to that time made the post singularly unattractive, and Jay retired from public service. He died in New York on 17 May 1829.


Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions (New York: Chelsea House, 1969);

Frank Monighan John Jay (New York: AMS Press, 1935).

Jay, John

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Jay, John

JAY, JOHN. (1745–1829). Statesman, diplomat. New York. Born New York City on 12 December 1745, Jay graduated from King's College (now Columbia) in 1764, was admitted four years later to the bar, and became a successful New York City lawyer. Marriage in 1774 to Sarah, daughter of William Livingston of New Jersey, further extended his family connections. When the Revolution started he supported the Patriot cause, although with moderation. He became a member of the New York City Committee of Correspondence and served in the first and Second Continental Congresses. Although he was opposed to independence in the beginning, and had returned to office in the state legislation when the Declaration of Independence came up for a vote, he nevertheless became ardent in his dedication to the new United States. He helped to get cannon for General George Washington's army, set up a spy ring, and chaired the committee dedicated to battling Loyalists in New York. He guided the formulation of the 1777 state constitution, and served as Chief Justice of New York from 3 May of that year until 1779. Re-elected to Congress in December 1778, he became president of that body on the 10th and held this post until he was named minister to Spain, on 27 September 1779. Meanwhile, he had been elected colonel of the state militia in 1775, but had no military service in the field.

Spain's attitude toward the American Revolution was such that Jay had no chance of getting that country's recognition of the United States, even though it had declared war on Britain. Arriving at Cadiz with his wife on 22 January 1780 and remaining in the country two years, Jay accomplished little more than raising a small loan and getting the Spanish to keep up their secret assistance in war supplies. On 23 June 1782 Jay reached Paris to take part in the Peace Negotiations. He shared John Adams's suspicion of Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, and helped Adams convince Benjamin Franklin to sign preliminary articles of peace with the British without awaiting French concurrence.

On 24 July 1784 Jay reached New York, having declined the post of minister to London, and found he had been drafted for the post of Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Jay held this post until Thomas Jefferson became the first Secretary of State, on 22 March 1790. His most vexatious problems during this period stemmed from British and Spanish refusal to withdraw their garrisons from territory claimed by the United States. The impotence of the American Confederation weakened Jay's hand, and he became one of the strongest advocates of a strong federal government. He wrote five of the Federalist Papers, blaming ill health for keeping him from contributing more.

Becoming the first Chief Justice of the United States on 4 March 1789 (but serving as ad interim Secretary of State until Jefferson arrived to be sworn in on 22 March 1790), he sat during the first five years during which the Supreme Court's procedures were formed. While Chief Justice he was sent in the summer of 1794 to arrange a peaceful settlement of controversies with Great Britain that threatened war, leading to the politically divisive Jay's Treaty.

Jay had been defeated by George Clinton in 1792 for the governorship of New York, even though Jay got more votes. He returned from England in 1795 to find himself elected, and he served six years (two terms). His administration was conservative and upright, but no great issues arose to challenge it.

Republican strength assured Jay's defeat for governor in 1800, and he declined to run for re-election. His mind set on retirement, he also refused Adams's offer of reappointment as Chief Justice. Jay spent his last twenty-eight years in complete retirement on his 800-acre property at Bedford, Westchester County, New York, where he died on 17 May 1829.

SEE ALSO Jay's Treaty; Peace Negotiations.


Johnston, Henry P., ed. Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay. 4 vols. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1890–1893.

Monaghan, Frank. John Jay: Defender of Liberty. New York, Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935.

Morris, Richard B., ed. John Jay. The Making of a Revolutionary: Unpublished Papers, 1745–1780. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

――――――, ed. John Jay, The Winning of the Peace: Unpublished Papers, 1780–1784. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

――――――. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

                        revised by Michael Bellesiles

Jay, John

views updated May 17 2018


John Jay was a politician, statesman, and the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. He was one

of the authors of The Federalist, a collection of influential papers written with james madison and alexander hamilton prior to the ratification of the Constitution.

Jay was born in New York City on December 12, 1745. Unlike most of the colonists in the New World, who were English, Jay traced his ancestry to the French Huguenots, His grandfather, August Jay, immigrated to New York in the late seventeenth century to escape the persecution of non-Catholics under Louis XIV. Jay graduated from King's College, now known as Columbia University, in 1764. He was admitted to the bar in New York City in 1768.

One of Jay's earliest achievements was his participation in the settlement of the boundary line between New York and New Jersey in 1773. During the time preceding the Revolutionary War, Jay actively protested against British treatment of the colonies but did not fully advocate independence until 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was created. Jay then supported independence wholeheartedly. He was a member of the continental congress from 1774 to 1779, acting as its president from 1778 to 1779.

In 1776, Jay was a member of the Provincial Congress of New York and was instrumental in the formation of the constitution of that state. From 1776 to 1778, he performed the duties of New York chief justice.

"A distinctive character of the National Government, the mark of its legitimacy, is that it owes its existence to the act of the whole people who created it."
John Jay

Jay next embarked on a foreign service career. His first appointment was to the post of minister plenipotentiary to Spain in 1779, where he succeeded in gaining financial assistance for the colonies.

In 1782, Jay joined benjamin franklin in Paris for a series of peace negotiations with Great Britain. In 1784, Jay became secretary of foreign affairs and performed these duties until 1789. During his term, Jay participated in the arbitration of various international disputes.

Jay recognized the limitations of his powers in foreign service under the existing government of the articles of confederation, and this made him a strong supporter of the Constitution. He publicly displayed his views in the five papers he composed for The Federalist in 1787 and 1788. Jay argued for ratification of the Constitution and the creation of a strong federal government.

In 1789, Jay earned the distinction of becoming the first chief justice of the United States. During his term, which lasted until 1795, Jay rendered a decision in chisholm v. georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 1 L.Ed. 440 (1793), which subsequently led to the enactment of the eleventh amendment to the Constitution. This 1793 case involved the ability of inhabitants of one state to sue another state. The Supreme Court recognized this right but, in response, Congress passed the Eleventh Amendment denying the right of a state to be prosecuted or sued by a resident of another state in federal court.

During Jay's tenure on the Supreme Court, he was again called upon to act in foreign service. In 1794 he negotiated a treaty with Great Britain known as Jay's Treaty. This agreement regulated commerce and navigation and settled many outstanding disputes between the United States and Great Britain. The treaty, under which disputes were resolved before an international commission, was the origin of modern international arbitration.

In 1795 Jay was elected governor of New York. He served two terms, until 1801, at which time he retired.

He died May 17, 1829.

further readings

Bernstein, R.B. 1996. "Documentary Editing and the Jay Court: Opening New Lines of Inquiry." Journal of Supreme Court History (annual): 17–22.

——. 1996. "John Jay, Judicial Independence, and Advising Coordinate Branches." Journal of Supreme Court History (annual): 23–9.

Jay, William. 1833. The Life of John Jay. New York: Harper.

Monaghan, Frank. 1935. John Jay: Defender of Liberty. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Morris, Richard B., ed. 1985. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

——. 1975. John Jay: The Making of a Revolutionary. New York: Harper & Row.

Pellew, George. 1997. John Jay. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House.

Rossiter, Clinton Lawrence. 1964. Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.


Constitution of the United States; Federalist Papers; New York Constitution of 1777.

Jay, John

views updated May 29 2018

Jay, John (1745–1829) US statesman, first chief justice of the Supreme Court (1789–95) and president of the Continental Congress. With Alexander Hamilton and James Madison he wrote the Federalist Papers (1787–88), urging ratificiation of the US Constitution. In 1794 he concluded Jay's Treaty, which settled outstanding disputes with Britain and restored trade relations.

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